Nathan Taitt, CEO of Blueprint Digital, based in Atlanta, GA, discusses his company’s use of integrated digital, multi-channel lead generation strategies for his service-industry customers. He believes that:
1) Facebook can play a key role at all funnel levels,
2) Establishing funnel-stage KPIs facilitates customer expectation management, and
3) On the leadership side, the employee and top line revenue numbers say little about a company’s success.
Nathan has found decoupling satisfaction, profitability, and healthy business growth from the ego of large numbers pays big dividends for his employees, his business, and his customers.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Nathan Taitt, CEO of Blueprint Digital, based in metro Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome, Nathan.
NATHAN: Hey, what’s going on, Rob? Great to be here, man.
ROB: Thanks for coming on. Great to have you. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Blueprint and about what the company’s great at?
NATHAN: I’d love to. Thank you. We focus on integrated digital strategy. Historically, we’ve done really well with SEO, with PPC, with social. But really, over the last 3 years, especially with the emergence of Facebook and the power that it presents, we’ve seen ourselves differentiate from competitors by really integrating those strategies well.
Whenever we start a new campaign, we talk it through with the customer, just understanding the full funnel and explaining and educating them as to how each of those—meaning SEO, PPC, social—how they play at each level of the funnel. We can go into more of that later, or now if you want to, but that’s really what sets us apart. We do a really great job integrating multiple channels to ultimately achieve the desired result for the customer.
ROB: What kind of objectives are they typically pursuing?
NATHAN: Our bread and butter is definitely lead gen. Obviously, you’ve got awareness and ecommerce campaigns, but the main thing that we typically do is lead gen for service industries.
But, within the full funnel, it’s important, as you can imagine, to make sure you’ve got the right KPIs at each stage. We’re not going to drive a lot of leads at the awareness level. So we make sure that we set up clear KPIs all the way down the funnel, so that ultimately it leads to the target return on investment for the customers.
ROB: That makes sense. You mentioned awareness, you mentioned leads and probably some things in between. At what point in the new client process do you go about setting those expectations around how things are going to be measured and what they can expect in terms of the different phases, and even the lag time between the start of that process and when leads come kicking out the other side?
NATHAN: Great question. We use 4 A’s for our funnel: Awareness, Attraction, Acquisition, and Advocacy. That’s where we get started, because if we don’t define what the full funnel looks like and what we’re trying to accomplish, then we’re certainly destined for failure. We want to make sure that we set up, really clearly from the beginning, what a win looks like for the customer.
One thing that’s important is we believe that Facebook really plays at every level of the funnel. As we explain it, when we’re doing Awareness, typically that’s just going to be more of a social play. Obviously you’ve got offline marketing that’s going to work great for branding and awareness, but from a digital perspective? We say Facebook is king at that level.
As you move into Attraction, we’re still using social very heavily—usually your Steps 2 & 3 in the funnel—but then we begin to add in SEO. At this point we’re looking at more longtail keywords, so people who are more in the information-gathering phase. We want to make sure that we’re presenting our customer as an option there and getting that touchpoint.
Then once you’ve got that group of potential customers, now it’s time to drive the Acquisition. Still, we would leverage Facebook. Our goal is that Facebook would actually be able to stand on its own as a full funnel. But then we want to go in and target the conversional keywords from an SEO perspective, and then also PPC. PPC predominantly plays bottom of funnel.
Then, once we’ve acquired the customer, it’s going to be SEO through your local reviews, and then, obviously, Facebook is a great platform for generating Advocacy.
ROB: It may be a little bit too soon to have data points on this, but in March of 2018, where we are right now, Facebook has certainly been in the news for a variety of reasons. Have you had any pushback or questions from clients or any wariness or hesitancy about their use of Facebook as a primary platform?
NATHAN: We haven’t from clients, but ironically there are some key players that integrate with Facebook. Because of the backlash that Facebook is getting right now from the government and from the public, Facebook is being hyper-cautious. So we’re actually seeing some things temporarily shut down.
There’s some really powerful Messenger integrations that we can use with Facebook which are really not a violation of privacy; it’s your Messenger, so that people who want to engage can. But because Facebook is really under the spotlight right now, they’re being extra cautious and they’re shutting down some things.
Fortunately, if those accounts are already set up, we’re able to continue to run them and optimize them. But as of right now, there are some really key strategies that we’re not allowed to launch. So we definitely have seen some consequences from everything that’s going on politically.
ROB: Wow. You mentioned that you came from more of a PPC and SEO background. I think there was a season where maybe organic social was the belle of the ball.
NATHAN: Oh yeah.
ROB: Do you feel like now, though—paid social has certainly been on the come-up—do you feel like that has now given you an unfair advantage where you maybe had a weakness for a few years? Now that paid social is just performing, has that helped you grow even more?
NATHAN: It’s interesting. I’ve really never thought of it that way, but that’s absolutely true. Coming from the intensity of strategy that’s required for both organic search and paid search, but especially for paid search—understanding the critical nature of conversion tracking and split-testing your ads and your landing pages—5 years ago you could just post organically on Facebook and you’d get great return for no investment. Now, as you said, that’s just not the case at all.
So yeah. I actually would say that our history on the search side has really set us up for success. It’s absolutely the #1 area that we’re growing right now, is in the paid social front.
ROB: How did you come to start the company in the first place? What led you to take this entrepreneurial dive?
NATHAN: Probably like most entrepreneurs, just born that way. I don’t want to work for anybody else. I love building and starting businesses, and I think that’s true for most of us as entrepreneurs.
I went to school and studied Marketing and Computer Science. I’m a person of faith, so I actually got my Master’s in Theology from seminary. That has really influenced how I move forward in business—my faith background. There’s just a passion in me for people, especially my team. I feel like it really empowered me to do well on the leadership side of the company. It’s an area that I really, really care about.
And then obviously just getting some of the basics. An education in 2007 doesn’t give you much specific related to digital, but just an understanding the fundamental principles of marketing. And then coming out of college, I was certainly destined to be an entrepreneur. Like I said, I’ve been that way since I was a kid.
I had an invitation to take over a family business where they needed SEO, so I engaged there and saw a lot of success. I was solo in 2007 and have just grown ever since, adding people, adding clients, adding services. That’s how I got started.
ROB: Awesome. You mentioned that you’re a person of faith. If anyone goes to your LinkedIn, they will see that you also spent 4 years as a worship pastor.
NATHAN: That’s right.
ROB: It’s kind of unique, I think, to have someone who’s providing SEO, pay-per-click, and worship—maybe for some of the same people.
NATHAN: [laughs] That’s absolutely right. You always have to be careful because you never win at every campaign. If I’m doing campaigns for people at church, they need to understand from the beginning, it’s always a gamble. We can never guarantee success, and I want to make sure that those relationships stay intact. Fortunately, that has been the case. I haven’t lost any relationships yet.
ROB: Excellent. I’d imagine, coming from a faith perspective, something that’s probably underappreciated leadership-wise is just valuing people. I think that serves well for customers and that serves well for team members.
When did you start having these inflection points where it was not just you and you started adding people? What were some of the interesting additions to the team along the way that have helped you and served you well and complemented your own skills?
NATHAN: I was solo for a couple years. I had a contractor. Then I began to look at how I could grow, so I started adding people probably around 2010.
I would say that what I learned very quickly is that I need to make sure that I am not the smartest person in the room. Even doing this podcast, if you want someone to talk about advanced topics and technology and systems regarding Facebook or search, honestly, I’m not even the guy. The people that are around me are so much more educated and experienced in those things.
But I love being the bridge between a business owner and walking them through the bridge of what I would call strategy and bringing that with subject matter experts in those meetings.
The key additions over the years have been the SMEs that have joined me. Now we have a handful. We’re a pretty small team, about 10 of us, and I expect that we’ll continue to grow. But that’s been the main thing. I don’t drive a whole lot anymore, which I’m proud of. I’m more focused on the people and the vision of the company.
ROB: One thing I think you have an interesting perspective on that may be interesting to share is that you didn’t actually start the company as Blueprint Digital.
NATHAN: No, we didn’t. We started as Eclipse Web Media. The branding idea there was that we were very SEO-centric. Eclipse is kind of this idea of passing. That was part of our brand: when you come to us for SEO, you will essentially eclipse the competitors. I don’t know how much that branding message was really caught by our clients.
But as we began to add on services and SMEs, we really became a strategy-first company. We talked about that earlier in the podcast, that, really, the key to success digitally is to understand the full funnel. That’s where we came up with the name Blueprint. We want to start every campaign—every relationship—by mapping out a really clear blueprint or digital strategy for success.
A lot of times, one of the ways we get started is we’ll build out this blueprint, and it’s really intensive. It usually takes us a couple months to build it out. It’s pretty heavy. Then we’ll just invite people—they can take the strategy and go to other agencies if they want to. Typically, obviously, they’ll use us. But strategy is definitely where we want to start, so that’s why we rebranded to Blueprint.
ROB: What were the feelings that started to crop up that made you start to contemplate, “Hey, maybe Eclipse isn’t the right name for us to wear anymore”? What was that process like, and maybe the timeline from when you started feeling to when you pulled the trigger?
NATHAN: I think it was really the people that I was blessed to have around me. I don’t really feel like it was coming from me. I was the one that came up with Eclipse; I wasn’t in love with it, but it didn’t bother me. I think having professionals who were really experienced and coming from either outside agencies, agencies that they had started and then coming and joining our team, just began to push on the brand.
So it was a process, probably over a year, where we started to question the name Eclipse. Ultimately—we’re not a branding agency, but we certainly understand and can touch branding—we realized that Eclipse did not speak to who we were.
The irony is that as soon as we changed, immediately we automatically began to start connecting with larger clients. Clients that were our norm were probably in the $20,000 a year type level. We rebranded and within 3-6 months our average was $5,000-$10,000 a month. Almost a 3x. We attribute that to branding. Really cool to see the consequence of the rebrand.
ROB: That’s an interesting takeaway there. Perhaps even in being more comprehensive in how you presented yourself, it probably helped people to think of you as being more comprehensive in what you provided.
One challenge that often comes with that increasing budget that I’ve seen is dealing with clients that were maybe at the old, lower budget points. Have you had to make decisions to move your minimums around with clients? Have you been able to graduate some to a broader scope of work? Or are you still keeping everyone, even some of those legacy clients, where you found them?
NATHAN: For me it comes down to profitability. We’re just tracking—we’ve got clients that are pretty small, and it’s only a few of them, but as long as they’re meeting the profitability threshold—we’ve got a great relationship. We’ve been working with them for 7 years or more, so they’re really friends. We’ll pitch them some ideas, but some of them are just really small companies and they’re not even looking to grow to that level. So you’ve got that as one category.
Then you’ve got a category of really needy clients that either need to move up to the next level or move on to another company. We’ve certainly had some of those. Most of the time it ends amicably.
And then ideally, it’s what you just said, that we present the funnel so that they understand the opportunity and then we begin to grow those accounts.
So those are the three buckets that they’ve fallen into. Staying static, just going ahead and dissolving the relationship, and then we’ve also had several that have grown up to be at the minimums that we need.
ROB: How do you go about measuring profitability? I think direct profitability of a given activity you’re doing for a client is perhaps simple, but it’s more complicated to get that sort of fully loaded profitability and understanding—you’ve got overhead, you’ve got customer acquisition, you’ve got non-billable people. How do you think about the bigger picture of profitability and making sure that you’re measuring that correctly?
NATHAN: This gets a little bit personal, but honestly, Rob, because of my background and really prioritizing people, I think that probably the greatest weakness over the last 10 years for me has been thinking about profitability—but really not focusing there, and more so focusing on people and developing those people.
When the profitability isn’t where it needs to be—I love this quote from a mentor of mine; he says, “Without margin, there is no mission.” Really, as a business owner, whatever your mission is in life, if you don’t have the financial margin and the time margin, you’re not going to be able to give yourself into that mission. That’s really been my focus as a primary focus over the last 6 months, and I’ve seen some dividends.
So to answer your question specifically, obviously there’s your standard reporting to measure the profitability of the company, and that I would say is first. But then based on that, we can do some relatively simple calculations that say this is the minimum hourly rate that we need to be making, and if we go under that, we are now no longer profitable. Here’s our target rate, here’s our minimum.
I get a report every month that shows me a green, yellow, red. This client’s in the red, we need to fix it immediately; this is yellow, we need to tweak it. Green, this is good, we’re in the range of where we need to be from a profitability perspective.
ROB: You have some outside bookkeeper person that’s helping you? You’re not trying to put the green, yellow, red together yourself?
NATHAN: Actually, on the company side, yes, a bookkeeper does it, but we automate the reports through a platform called Harvest, where we’re harvesting all of the hours and it automates a report and exports to Excel so I can see—here’s the budget and here’s what the profitability is going to be. Some of that has been manual in the past, but we’re looking to automate that this year. That should really be helpful.
ROB: Got it. I think the profitability and this personal bottom line issue, you really have to—just being realistic about it as an entrepreneur, if you’re not providing for your family and those around you, it’s really hard, even while valuing people, to really make everything work well in life. It creates a tension.
ROB: I think that’s a good lesson there. What are some other things that you’ve learned from your experience in building Blueprint and building it from Eclipse, even, that you would consider doing differently?
NATHAN: Two things, and they’re both related to people. I think the greatest lesson, Rob, like I said previously, is for me personally—just really focusing on profit. That actually does need to come first because it alleviates the tension and allows you to do everything else well, both professionally and personally.
But, on the people side, one of the things that I’ve struggled with, again, with my more pastoral background, is I’m always seeing the good in people. That’s a great quality to have, but sometimes I’m not connected with reality.
I think it was Steve Jobs who said that the worst thing you can do to an ‘A’ player is to make them work with a ‘B’ player. I’ve seen that, unfortunately, a lot in my company. That’s something that we’ve really corrected, and we have an incredible team. Two years ago we were 30 people, and it was a small pocket of really great, talented, experienced marketers, and then some youth. My philosophy was let the super talent train the young talent so that they can grow up and we can grow.
It all makes sense on paper, but unfortunately it’s extremely frustrating because you’ve got inexperienced people who are doing the work and they’re not doing a great job. So moving forward, I’m really not looking to have a huge team, but more to have the right team.
For us, the second point is to define what an ‘A’ player is. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Patrick Lencioni. I’m a huge fan of his, and one of the books—I think he wrote it last year—it’s called The Ideal Team Player. We’ve totally copied it from him, and we talk about it, at a minimum, every week.
His three attributes in a great team player are hunger, humility, and being smart. We look at those three things consistently. We make sure everyone has quarterly goals in all three of those buckets. If you come to the team with humility, if you’re hungry to learn, and if you have intelligence—which is really more connected to emotional intelligence—it creates a really, really strong team.
That’s been a huge takeaway. Making sure that we’ve got ‘A’ players in every seat and that they’re growing and becoming more and more what Lencioni would call an ideal team player has been really pivotal for us.
ROB: That sounds like you’ve internalized those values into your core values. I know Dave Ramsey’s organization also talks a lot about this; he’s in the financial and media side of the world. I think the question there when it comes to core values is, would you actually transition someone out if you found that they weren’t hungry or humble or smart? Is that a deal-breaker now for Blueprint?
NATHAN: Yeah, it definitely is. What’s really great is it actually makes the conversation easier. When you don’t establish the core values from the beginning and someone violates a core value, but it’s a core value that hasn’t been communicated, it’s very difficult to discipline—discipline meaning whatever that might be. It’s difficult to correct because it hasn’t been established at the beginning.
Whereas. if you say, “These are our core values. We’re a team that’s going to be hungry, we’re going to be humble, and we’re going to be smart. You just did something that was really offensive and you didn’t even realize that you’ve got a body count behind you and all these people who are frustrated. We’ve committed to being a team that has emotional intelligence and cares about other people. How do you respond to that?”
If they say, “Oh, my gosh, I had no idea; you’re right, I want to grow in this”—we actually have brought on a part-time coach. He’s fantastic. His name is Tolu, tolucoaches.com. He’s really, really good. So whenever these issues come up, they have someone who can mentor them immediately through it. They’re meeting with Tolu every two weeks.
And then if the inverse is true and they say, “That’s stupid, they’re immature, they should’ve . . .” whatever, and it just becomes silliness and immaturity, then because we’ve set the stranded from the beginning, it makes the conversation pretty natural. “Hey, you’re not really willing to grow in this area, so this probably needs to be the end of the road.”
ROB: And that’s hard, but it sounds like it equips you to do that with even more dignity, maybe, than just more an impulsive—closely held businesses can be a little crazy, and it sometimes can seem impulsive when someone gets the boot.
ROB: You mentioned you had 30 people and there was perhaps less discipline in the business, less profitability. But one thing that happens a lot, and I’m sure you’ve seen this endlessly, is when you tell someone that you run a company and you tell somebody what you do, one of the next questions is always, “Oh, how many people do you have?”
NATHAN: Oh yeah. For sure.
ROB: It sounds like you have made peace with that transition, and there’s perhaps greater personal contentment and happiness. What thoughts and tips do you have with decoupling the satisfaction, profitability, and healthy growth of the business with the ego of large numbers? Not to say that you have an ego about it, but it’s a natural challenge, I think.
NATHAN: Rob, this is so good. I feel like you’re putting some language around some things that I have been mulling over and have been difficult over the last few years. You’re right; to be a business owner and to have 30+ employees is always really impressive. I think the other metric that is impressive is your topline revenue. Those are the two vanity metrics. “How many people do you employ and how much revenue do you have?”
The reality is, over probably 4 years, I grew 50 to 100% every year in revenue and probably 50% in personnel, and I made the exact same amount of money or less over 4 years. But no one ever asked me, “How much money do you make?” because that’s a personal, awkward question. But everybody does ask how many people and how much revenue. It’s fun to brag about, but it’s painful when you don’t have the profit to pay those people and you have to make those difficult decisions to downsize and to get healthy.
So yes, I have definitely made peace. I have lost the ego of how many people I hire and what my topline revenue is. Also, what’s been really powerful is I’m leading with a lot more transparency. Every month I open up the P&L with the entire team so that we can really own it together and they can see how profitable we are and what their department looks like and there’s a level of accountability. So transparency has been the fruit of that.
But you nailed it. You’ve got to come to peace with the fact that people and revenue are not the indicators by which you want to measure a business’s health.
ROB: Right. I think one compliment from that transition—and this is not my compliment, but in terms of just leadership style and leaving things in a healthy place, a number of people suggested that I should talk to you and interview you for this podcast, and one of them is someone who used to work for you.
NATHAN: Yes, that’s right.
ROB: I think that’s a tremendously high compliment when someone says, “Hey, I don’t work there anymore, but you should talk to Nathan. You should talk to him about leading well in a marketing agency.”
NATHAN: I appreciate that. It is a huge compliment. It’s not always going to be the case. Sometimes when you’ve got to let people go, there’s no amount of words that can create the understanding that you’d hoped for. But I am grateful that probably the majority of people that have worked for me previously were thankful for the leadership and for the opportunity. That’s a huge compliment. It’s something that I certainly want to leave as a legacy.
ROB: I think that’s a good note to take there. I think you touched on this a little bit, but what are you excited about that’s coming up for Blueprint and perhaps the broader marketing landscape as well?
NATHAN: I think any entrepreneur is either blessed or cursed with this ridiculous amount of optimism. We have to believe that the grass is always greener, but I don’t think I’ve ever believed it with so much faith.
I feel like, Rob, honestly the lessons that I’ve learned in every facet of business over the last 2-3 years, there’s a sense in which—maybe it’s naïveté, but I really feel confident that I’ve got this figured out. And that’s because of having really, really great people around me. Understanding, like you said, it’s not about the number of people, it’s not about your topline revenue, but really focusing on profitability.
The other part of that is process. Any entrepreneur knows that if you’re going to scale, you’ve got to have really, really great process. One of the things that we’re actually looking to do in the future—it probably won’t be this year; we’ll probably start to kick that off next year—we have a proprietary process for SEO. Not necessarily a secret sauce, but it’s very efficient, aligns with Google’s algorithm, it’s all about quality and consistent content. We’ve built a process that allows us to do that really, really well. So we’re actually looking at building a SaaS [Software as a Service] product where we can invite other agencies to come in. It’s kind of a Basecamp for SEO. It basically manages that process.
So we are growing tremendously. Quarter 1 is now coming to an end and we’ve exceeded all of our goals. I’m excited. I feel like I’ve learned some difficult lessons in every area of business, and I’m ready to apply those lessons into a lot of growth and to build what’s going to be a super healthy company.
ROB: I look forward to seeing where you go with that. Nathan, when someone wants to get in touch with you and with Blueprint, what’s the best way for them to find you?
NATHAN: Our URL is blueprintdigital.com. Anyone can feel free to email me; my email is email@example.com. Also, feel free to call my cell if you want: (770) 990-2888. I would love to talk to anyone that wants to talk about . . . whether it’s leadership in a business or how to grow their own company through digital marketing and an integrated funnel.
ROB: That’s strong transparency even on the contact information. That’s great.
NATHAN: There you go. [laughs]
ROB: Thanks, Nathan. It’s been good connecting and talking with you. Thank you for sharing and being very honest in ways that are helpful for people.
NATHAN: Good. Thanks, Rob. I appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure.
ROB: Thanks. Take care.
Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.